Prior to the natural gas-fueled explosions that destroyed dozens of homes, displaced thousands of people and killed an 18-year-old man in Merrimack Valley, Columbia Gas announced plans to repair and replace pipelines in neighborhoods across the state.
Included in the list of neighborhoods were some of the same communities later engulfed in flames, including Andover, Lawrence and North Andover where Columbia Gas pipelines became over-pressurized and exploded on Sept. 13.
The reason for the over-pressurization is under federal investigation. The Chronicle's news partner, WCVB, reported Sept. 19 that subcontractor Feeney Brothers Utility Services was performing underground gas line work on the south side of Lawrence the day the explosions occurred. According to a Cambridge City Council policy order on Sept. 24, Eversource has contracted out work in Cambridge to Feeney Brothers, as well. This led Councilor Quinton Zondervan, the head sponsor of the order, to call for an immediate freeze to any work conducted by Feeney Brothers in Cambridge.
"Feeney Brothers Utility Services is also contracted by Eversource to do work in Cambridge, and the contractor has already demonstrated negligence on our streets, including a summer 2018 incident where they mistakenly and severely damaged the root system of a 36-caliper-inch oak tree on Gore Street while excavating a trench for new pipeline service as part of the larger street reconstruction project, forcing the city to remove the tree in order to protect the safety of nearby residents," read the policy order.
"Nobody was hurt in that instance thanks to the swift action of city employees, but in an official notice to residents, the city called the mistake 'simply unacceptable' and 'an egregious breach of the city's permit requirements with Eversource,'" the order continued. "We don't know exactly what caused the tragedy in Merrimack Valley, but we cannot afford to take any chances with apparently negligent contractors working on our aging pipeline infrastructure."
Question of proper oversight
On Sept. 21, Feeney Brothers released a statement, saying they are cooperating with the investigation and standing by their workers.
"All of Feeney's work was done with Columbia Gas's oversight and according to written procedures provided to its crew by Columbia Gas and directly overseen by a union inspector employed by Columbia Gas," read the statement. "Feeney's crew and Columbia Gas's inspector were interviewed by Columbia Gas managers in the early hours of Friday morning after which Columbia Gas reported that our crew was solid and had done nothing wrong. This was subsequently confirmed by other Columbia Gas representatives who indicated that Feeney followed the Columbia Gas procedures correctly and as directed."
As the investigation continues, Columbia Gas is scrambling to replace nearly 50 miles of old pipeline in the affected area. And similar work is happening in other parts of the state, as utility companies for years have been working to replace hundreds of miles of gas lines in Cambridge and all around Massachusetts.
"There's a lot more work going on right now throughout the state than there ever was," said John Buonopane, president of the United Steelworkers Local 12012.
Buonopane, who's worked in the gas industry for three decades, is currently out of a job. National Grid Massachusetts, a Waltham-based subsidiary of National Grid PLC of London, in June locked out 1,100 unionized gas workers, including Buonopane, after the company and union failed to reach a contract agreement.
Buonopane said an event like what happened in Merrimack Valley is rare. But Massachusetts residents should nonetheless be concerned about the extensive gas-line infrastructure work happening throughout the state because it's largely being done without much state oversight.
"It's a lot of work and I don't think the state has the oversight it should," Buonopane said.
This was also a sticking point for the Cambridge City Council policy order, which reads: "Feeney Brothers has also been contracted by National Grid during the lockout of more than 1,200 United Steelworkers... who have collectively reported nearly 100 safety complaints to the Department of Public Utilities regarding Feeney Brothers worksites since the lockout began."
In a Sept. 24 letter to the Cambridge City Council, Audrey Schulman, president of Home Energy Efficiency Team, said her organization has been researching and working gas leaks for years now.
"From what we know about the gas system and how it is replaced, it is reasonable to conjecture that Feeney Brothers is likely involved, if not the cause of the Merrimack Valley explosions," she wrote.
'A heightened sense of awareness'
For its part, Columbia Gas has donated $10 million to the Merrimack Valley relief fund and withdrawn a rate hike request of $33 million. It's also become the target of at least one class-action lawsuit. The day after the explosions, Columbia Gas President Steve Bryant held a press conference, saying, "We are sorry and deeply concerned about the inconvenience."
The fallout is pushing other utility companies to reassure customers that safety is a priority.
"We recognize that last week's events have created a heightened sense of gas public safety awareness," said Christine Milligan, National Grid spokeswoman. "We have assured our customers that our gas system is performing normally and we remain committed to keeping an ever-vigilant eye on safety, continuous improvement and best practices."
The sentiment is echoed by Eversource, which Gov. Charlie Baker called on to handle the emergency response in the wake of the explosions. Columbia Gas was criticized for its slow response to the emergency.
"Given all of the work we do in Cambridge, we have a close working relationship with the DPW commissioner and met with him last Friday," Mike Durand, spokesman for Eversource, wrote in an email to the Chronicle. "Both we and the city maintain a high level of oversight of the work we and our contractors do, and we're committed to maintaining our oversight."
Durand said Eversource will continue to use the services of Feeney Brothers.
"We believe our inspection protocol, which includes three distinct parts, is among the best in the industry," he added. "We have internal union inspector, supervisory inspectors, and internal quality assurance/quality control inspections that are done by a completely separate department."
As for future use of Feeney Brothers in Cambridge, Councilor Zondervan said it's ultimately up to the city manager whether to put pressure on Eversource to cease using the subcontractor.
"If the city manager agrees that it's too big a risk, even with good inspectors, and he puts pressure on Eversource to comply, then, yes, it could happen," said Zondervan in a follow-up interview with the Chronicle. "Certainly if there's another incident or problem that occurs, that's going to give people a lot more pause."
"There's a lot of smoke there. And I don't want to necessarily say there's a fire, but it's starting to smell like one," he added.
Eli Sherman is an investigative and in-depth reporter at Wicked Local and GateHouse Media. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @Eli_Sherman.
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